Canada attempts to address 'shameful' racial disparity in criminal justice system

FILE PHOTO: Officers walk by a police car in front of the Toronto South Detention Centre in Toronto, Canada, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada’s federal government introduced a bill on Thursday aimed at addressing what the justice minister called a “shameful” over-representation of Black and indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

Indigenous adults represent 5% of Canada’s general population but 30% of its federally incarcerated population, Justice Minister David Lametti said. Black people represent 3% of the general population but 7.2% of the federal offender population.

The bill ends mandatory minimum sentences for select drug and firearm crimes and makes it easier to impose conditional sentences that can be served in the community.

It also requires police and prosecutors to consider alternatives such as treatment in cases of simple drug possession. This comes amid a worsening overdose crisis, with the government under increasing pressure to decriminalize the possession of opioids and other illicit drugs.

Lametti told reporters he would not rule out the possibility of decriminalization, but said “what I’m focusing on today is the sentencing element.”

“This (racial disparity in the justice system) is shameful,” he said. “The reason the numbers are so high is due in good part to current sentencing laws, which focus on punishment.”

Mandatory minimum penalties have been found to contribute to over-incarceration of people of color, and their repeal could make a big difference for individuals who might otherwise spend years behind bars, said Jamie Livingston, a criminologist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

But overall, Livingston said, the bill was a disappointment for advocates, who seek full decriminalization of the simple possession of illicit drugs and expanded treatment facilities.

“If you’re going to do this half measure, which is complex, why not do the full meal deal, which can also be complex but achieves many more goals than what this bill will actually achieve?”

Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Dan Grebler